I am so glad that this book, A Lesson in Dying, wasn’t the first Ann Cleeves book I read (I think it’s the 17th), for, if it had been, I fear I may never have picked up another one. It’s not that it is bad, it’s just that it’s not very good – particularly when compared to her later work. I guess, in that regard, I am being a tad unfair, though as others have noted, it’s reassuring to see how much Cleeves has developed in her craft – it’s what, as a writer, you hope you do.
This story is centered around the small village of Heppleburn and the murder of one of the most unpleasant men in Cleeve’s fiction: the headmaster of the local primary school, Harold Medburn. The list of suspects is enormous but, early on, Inspector Ramsay, a not very well fleshed out character who peppers the book rather than becoming an established character (who, it seems is destined to lead a series), decides who he thinks committed the crime and makes an arrest.
This hasty resolution not only proves disastrous, but encourages two related locals to become amateur sleuths. But, as they draw nearer to the killer, more deaths occur, forcing Ramsay to not only acknowledge his initial mistake, but enlist the help of the amateurs.
Unlike Cleeves’ later work, most of the characters here are two dimensional. Though they’re presented with a rawness and sometimes realness that allows you to feel and even empathise with them, it doesn’t happen for long or often enough. You simply don’t invest in them. I know I didn’t care. I also became very frustrated by some of the damn stupid things so many of the characters did. Illogical, rash, and with no context, these characters were just convenient foils to move the plot along, making it appear more contrived than perhaps it needed to be.
The worst of all of these was Ramsay. A mere shadow in the background for more than half the book, his greatest sin is that he is a fool. His actions and decisions are either unbelievable or happen off the page. Couldn’t warm to him or understand him at all. I imagine he must improve as the series goes on.
Overall, there is some lovely writing and the setting is so well done. I don’t think I’ll be reading these earlier works as I don’t want them to colour my utter pleasure in Cleeves’ later ones. Having said that, I am so glad others enjoyed them and can see in this early work the seeds being sewn for someone who becomes one of the doyens of British crime. Two and half stars, really.